French minister 'unaware' of order to target Roma
French Immigration Minister Eric Besson Monday denied knowing anything about a circular sent to police calling for Roma to be targeted for eviction as part of a clampdown on traveller minorities.
"I was not aware of this circular," Besson told France 2 television. "It was not addressed to me and I did not need to know about it."
The missive, signed by Besson's chief of staff Michel Bart and dated August 5, was sent to French police prefects to outline the "specific objectives" of President Nicolas Sarkozy's controversial clampdown on traveller minorities.
"Three hundred camps or illegal settlements must be cleared within three months, Roma camps are a priority," it said.
"It is therefore up to prefects in every part of the country to undertake... a systematic approach of dismantling illicit camps, as a priority those of the Roma."
The circular contrasts with Besson's statement Thursday that "France has not taken any measure specifically against the Roma (who) are not considered as such but as natives of the country whose nationality they have."
On Monday, Besson said that "the concept of ethnic minorities is a concept that does not exist for us," and declined to comment further. He referred questions to the chief of staff of Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux.
The European parliament and rights groups have criticised Sarkozy's crackdown on illegal Roma and gypsy encampments across the country, which has seen hundreds of people being flown back to Bulgaria and Romania.
The circular led immigrants' rights group Gisti to say it would try to get the document "annulled" by the state council, France's highest court, and was mulling taking further legal action.
"A group of people is being targeted because they belong to a certain community," said Gisti's head Stephane Maugendre.
The European Parliament last week demanded the immediate suspension of the Roma expulsions in a non-binding resolution, with French Euro MP Harlem Desir on Sunday denouncing the circular as illegal.
"This circular is absolutely contrary to numerous French, European and international legal texts, and contravenes several fundamental rights recognised by the European Union and France," Desir said in a statement.
The circular was sent out about a week after Sarkozy launched his controversial initiative in late July.
Sarkozy summoned his ministers and police chiefs to review what he dubbed "the situation of travelling people and Roma and the problems that certain members of these communities pose to public order and safety."
Since then, around a thousand Roma have been expelled from the country, with those who leave voluntarily receiving 300 euros from the French government.
On Thursday, after a meeting between French and Romanian ministers in Bucharest, France agreed to help Romania integrate its Roma community into mainstream society to encourage them to stay in the country.
© 2010 AFP